Visiting Some Benedictines, Part 1
Tuesday, 8 June
At oh-dark-thirty, Christopher and I arose. We’d packed our clothes the night before. I showered. While Christopher showered I ground some coffee beans and made what I thought might have been my last cup of coffee until Friday morning. After Christopher and I dressed, we finished packing, loaded the car, and hit the road, directions from our home to Clear Creek Abbey in eastern Oklahoma spelled out on a five-by-eight index card.
We had packed light. Shirt and pants combinations sorted on hangers. Necessary toiletries and medicines (or so I thought). My school computer on which I’ve typed these words. My copy of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which is the summer reading for my incoming 7th grade boys. We took the Rav 4, which had been serviced a couple of weeks ago and which proudly rode on four new tires. I filled up the elbow-side compartment with CDs to sing along with during the drive.
Our route took us up I-45 North until Fairfield, Texas, but first we stopped in Madisonville to visit the Lakeside Restaurant. I’ve eaten there once or twice before heading to or from the Dallas area, a section of the state we would avoid this trip. The freeways around Dallas and Forth Worth are a maze built by madmen, and so we left I-45 behind in Fairfield, taking farm roads and state highways, zigzagging north toward the Red River.
We passed into Oklahoma shortly before lunchtime, arriving in Hugo. It was here that my index card of directions proved inaccurate. A helpful lady at a Dollar General and then later a helpful gentlemen at a Choctaw Nation gas station in the Ozarks kept us on the right path. We hit Muskogee around 4 p.m., and I regretted not bring my Merle Haggard collection.
Since we’d skipped lunch to make up some lost time, we decided to not skip dinner. When traveling, I prefer to eat at local places rather than nation-wide chains. Give me some Mom-and-Pop family business diner over Denny’s or McDonald’s. Intrigued by a roadside sign, we stopped at the Amish Country Store & Restaurant in Muskogee.
Christopher had the open-faced meatloaf and I had The Jacob, a hearty portion of roast beef flanked by slices of American cheese and sandwiched between thick pieces of toasted bread with a side order of onion rings. Christopher had the apple cider; I had the blueberry. Wonderful food and friendly service by his and hers youths. The His, a lad sporting longish hair and an attempt at a moustache, restored some hope in today’s youth with his Pink Floyd T-shirt. I refrained from asking about his favorite Pink Floyd album for fear that he’d admit to only buying the T-shirt because he thought it looked cool.
We arrived at the Clear Creek Monastery about 5 p.m. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. No paved roads lead onto its property. At night, not a single town light or head light is visible. Wooded hills surround the monastery on all sides. We carried our stuff to our cells in the men’s guesthouse, a four story structure adjacent to the church and refectory. Our rooms are small, about 15-feet square, with an attached shower-and-sink bathing room. The other facilities are down the hall in a common men’s room.
At 6 p.m., we attended Vespers. My Latin is rusty due to disuse. Even with the aid of the prayer book, I lost my place as the monks chanted the prayers. I kept up with what Latin sections I could; when I couldn’t, I read the English. The chant was beautiful. The acoustics in the high-ceilinged, thick-walled, minimally windowed church gather up the Latin chords and spread them about the space, adding a soft layer of meditative hum to the prayers. Best of all, there was absolutely no sense that Vespers, which was well-attended by guests of the monastery, is any sort of public performance. The monks do not chant to impress an audience. They chant to raise their voices in unison to the praise and glory of God in a manner similar to what Benedictines have been doing for about 1,500 years.
(Nota Bene: If you’ve got about 25 minutes to spare, this link goes to a video of monks at Conception Abbey in Missouri chanting Vespers.)
After Vespers, we male guests lined up outside the refectory. Father Guestmaster (his title, not his actual name) explained briefly the structure of supper. We filed past two monks, one of whom held a bowl and pitcher of water, the other of whom held a towel, so that we could ceremonially wash our hands before entering the refectory. Father Guestmaster showed up to our places.
After more prayers standing so as to face the center of the room, we sat and ate in silence. No idle chit-chat occurs during supper, which consisted of three courses. We started with heavy bread and some sort of grain in vegetable broth. A mixture of cold carrots and green beans from the monastery gardens followed. For dessert, there was a sort of dense cake, vaguely sweet, which we could top with applesauce. We served ourselves lemonade or water from pitchers. Supper concluded, and we stood for a brief prayer before filing out of the refectory.
By this time, the early morning start combined with the long drive and the lack of air conditioning in the monastery's buildings had caused my feet to swell. Heading up and down the stairs to and from the third floor of the guesthouse had taken its toll on my knees. I’d forgotten my joint salve as well as any sort of over-the-counter pain meds. I was uncomfortably sticky. So, I showered, put on a pair of shorts, and set the box fan atop the desk in my room so that the air circulated better. By the time Compline, the final prayers of the day, started, I had read the first two chapters of The Wind in the Willows and fallen into a reasonably sound sleep.
Thus ended day one.
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